In 2020, Lily Collins came into her own, thanks to a fresh outlook, hit series, and the most anticipated film of the year.
Even 2020 has its bright spots – just ask cover star, Lily Collins. The actor-producer was among the millions forced to hit pause as the coronavirus crisis halted the breakneck pace that previously defined life post-millennium. Once set to traverse the globe promoting her Netflix series Emily in Paris (which recently got signed up for a second season) and plum part in director David Fincher’s Hollywood satire Mank, she instead found herself grounded in Los Angeles, settling into a new normal of work from home. “There’s been so much pivoting and adapting to make things work,” Collins shares with a smile. “In some ways, you’re relying on yourself, doing everything on your own in situations where normally you’d have help. No one is there organizing everything for you or saying this is where you need to be and what should get done. Now it’s, we’re going to make this happen ourselves; we’re going to get creative and come up with new ideas.”
Even through the distortion of a Zoom call, Collins’s willingness to take on such challenges is evident. Fresh from a fitting, she sits cross-legged in the comfort of her den, its cozy wallpaper bursting with flowers. As she pops in earbuds and adjusts her laptop in preparation for a chat, she could be mistaken for the latest teen YouTube star or ingénue, but at 31, the daughter of music royalty – her father is British musician Phil Collins – is stepping into the next chapter; one where she’s taking the creative reins. The process has meant taking risks, losing sleep, and getting a crash course in teleconferencing moments before e-meeting Fincher, all of which were worth the effort. “It was such a surreal, fast experience to make it all happen,” she says of juggling two high-profile projects at once. “I couldn’t think twice about it because when you get an opportunity to work with geniuses like Darren Star and David Fincher, you just take it and run with it.”
Offering her the spotlight she always deserved, the 10-episode series Emily in Paris follows Collins in the lead role. A social media-savvy Emily arrives in Paris from Chicago, to offer her American point of view to a French marketing firm. The series may be the brainchild of Sex and the City creator Star, but Collins serves as its producer. Contributing behind the scenes has been a goal for her since she was young, but she’d assumed the opportunity would arise later in her career. “The idea of using my voice to create stories and be a producer was always in the cards,” she explains. “I’d been told a few times over the past couple of years by different filmmakers I’ve worked with that if something’s not out there, you should make it yourself. In the beginning, I thought, OK, I’ll do that. Eventually, I’ll get to it. I was still focused on what scripts were out there and if I responded to them.” In Emily in Paris, she found a project that expanded her horizons – and a game collaborator in Star. “Darren and my fellow producers involved me in so many conversations that I had always wanted to be included in, but never felt I deserved to be part of,” she says. “They championed my opinions and opened me up to an experience that was so rewarding and empowering. Moving forward, I already know I want to do more of this and find stories that I can help tell.”
Collins’s ambitions connect with Hollywood’s new verve. Some of the most impressive media of the last few years have arisen thanks to actors who’ve produced female-focused passion projects. Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron, and Kerry Washington have all segued into the field; their production companies yielding prestige projects Big Little Lies, Mindhunter, and Confirmation, respectively. For Collins, producing is an organizational game of chess and the chance to elevate art that resonates with her. “I’m in awe of how producers can create something from the ground up by bringing together the right people,” she says. “The project you want to be a part of doesn’t have to be in front of the camera. If there is a book, article, or even a photograph that inspires you, you can create something out of it.”
Still, taking on added responsibility means being held accountable, especially online. Social media’s rapid responses to every piece of content can lead to mini-controversies. Some Parisian viewers found the show’s depiction of their culture stereotypical; its berets and baguettes idea of the City of Light far removed from their lived experiences. Collins doesn’t shy away from addressing the criticisms and their validity. “I think it’s important to see what people are responding negatively to,” she says. “Everyone will always have an opinion. You’re not going to be able to please everyone, but you would be remiss if you didn’t listen to what it is that people are saying.” For season two, she wants to evolve the narrative. “You have to look and see how we can make this better. If we’re given the opportunity to do season two, what are the conversations we can have about changing something, or illuminating something, or bringing to life an element that maybe we missed before? As disheartening as it is sometimes to read these things, it’s also a gift; you’re being allowed to improve.”
Collins’s composure in response to critique is a victory in itself. Vocal about her recovery from bulimia and anxiety issues, she’s found healthy ways of coping with stressors – especially while isolating. “Quarantine has empowered me to focus on my priorities, where and what makes me happy, and where I want to put my time in, instead of scouring reviews in search of negatives,” she says. “In the past, I would seek ways to control myself. It came out in the form of eating disorders or deep anxiety. Now I choose to read books, listen to podcasts, go outside myself, and try new things. I try to sit and work through my emotions instead of ignoring them. The old me would have focused more on the negative. Now it’s just one part of my life. All these other positive things prevent me from obsessing.” If she’s more posed today, one year ago, Collins was hopping on the red-eye, jetting from Paris to Los Angeles and back, having been cast in Mank while filming Emily in Paris. With Mank offering her a big, new challenge and the next chapter in her acting, Collins flew in for rehearsals and camera tests. A typical Friday would involve shooting in Paris into the wee hours then flying to Los Angeles right after. The moment she landed Stateside, it was straight to Fincher’s set for hours of hair and makeup tests, or running lines with co-stars Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried. Most people would whine about such a grueling schedule, but Collins was unfazed. “I can sleep whenever,” she says. “It would’ve been one of my biggest regrets if I didn’t push through because I can’t imagine not having taken the risk to do this.”
A classic film buff, who grew up visiting Hearst Castle and hearing stories of old Hollywood, Collins connected with Mank’s narrative. The film, which tells the story of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, is a wry twist on the biopic that unpacks the political corruption that hid behind the glamour of cinema’s golden age. Collins’s character, Rita Alexander, is a stenographer charged with keeping Mankiewicz (played by Oldman) on deadline, and serves as the film’s moral compass. Collins plays her with a cool reserve that sets her apart from the high-strung artists surrounding her. “Rita is no-nonsense, very logical, but also emotionally connected to Herman and the person who becomes his confidante in a sense,” she says. “She holds up the mirror and holds him accountable. She isn’t afraid to be the voice of reason at a time when that wasn’t her role.” The character shines brightest opposite Oldman’s irascible protagonist and Collins found the veteran actor a dream to work with. “You can’t get a much better scene partner to learn from; he raises your stakes,” she says. “David does that as well. They expect greatness because that’s what they believe in, and they know the film can be at that level. They’re willing to commit heavily, and if they’re bringing their A+ game, I’m going to try my hardest to rise to the occasion.”
Moving from Emily’s outré world to Mank’s naturalism was a balancing act. “It actually helped me doing both,” says Collins. “To go from bright color to black and white was the perfect way to separate the characters.” The sweeping changes in costume also contributed. Collins credits the hair and makeup teams with helping her to create each character’s persona. “Patricia Field and Trish Summerville are so incredible at what they do,” she says. “On Mank, Trish was dealing with picking colors based on how they’d look in black and white. There’s a huge art that goes into making something period without being a caricature. Rita is reserved in her manner and clothing; it’s utilitarian, but she takes pride in how she looks. Emily, meanwhile, is mixing colors, patterns, and designers. She’s bright, bold, and a little bit obvious, and so is her style.” Certainly, Emily in Paris is serving as a cheerful reminder of the uplifting power of fashion.
Collins’ own life seems to be teeming with color. Chief among the positives is her romance with fiancé Charlie McDowell. Collins lights up when she speaks of their instantaneous spark. “I knew from the moment we met that this was the person for me,” she says, noting that McDowell entered her life at a time when she was working on herself. “It wasn’t until I started to listen and know what I needed to do to feel more emotionally and spiritually fulfilled. I connected to myself, and through that work, I found myself at a place where I got engaged.” Quarantine restrictions complicate wedding plans, but Collins and McDowell are already building their life together. In the last few months, they’ve taken part in Black Lives Matter marches, adopted a puppy, and devoted themselves to causes like the children’s non-profit GO Campaign.
Periods of personal and professional fulfillment rarely align, but during a tumultuous year, Collins has found herself doubly blessed. When she and McDowell set their intentions on New Year’s Day, she didn’t anticipate the chain reaction that action would cause. “I can’t tell you the last time I’d written down intentions, but this is the first year when I’ll be able to look back at that list and see so many things I’ve implemented or questioned,” she says. “It made a difference for me even subconsciously. Soon we’ll all know more about where we are [in the US] but globally we’ve been through so much in 2020. We’re all connected so much more having gone through this together.” And if someone’s at home streaming Emily in Paris after a rough day indoors, Collins knows she’s done something right. “What I’m proudest of is the fact this is coming at a time when it’s needed,” she says. “An American in Paris isn’t a revolutionary idea but more than ever, people want to travel, to experience new things, and see something pretty and remember what it was like to go out and have fun. If I can be part of something that does that for people, it’s the most important thing.”
Originally published in the November 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Photography: Thomas Whiteside
Style: Simon Robins & William Thomas
Style Assistant: Jessica Thomas
Hair: Gregory Russel
Makeup: Fiona Stiles using Lâncome
Nails: Thuy Nguyen
Local Producer: Margot Fodor